Co-opting the Coop
Illustration by Kelsey McGilvrey.
The last several years have seen an explosion in urban homesteading. According to the American Community Gardening Association, there are currently more than 18,000 community gardens throughout the United States and Canada.
This figure alone speaks to the number of people interested in moving toward self-sufficiency via old-fashioned survival skills. It’s a renewal, we’re told: a renaissance of interest in craft and traditional homemaking skills. Whether it’s the New York Times touting fine furniture craftsmanship in “The Revival of the Artisan” or the Wall Street Journal profiling restaurants that specialize in farm-fresh local produce in “Betting the Farm Menu,” the media focuses on middle- and upper-class craft revival stories without acknowledging those who have preserved these skills in the first place.
Homesteading, particularly urban homesteading, is for some folks an alternative to the dominant social paradigm—a different way of living in a country in prolonged economic flux. But it’s a path to independence that doesn’t mean giving up access to museums and movie theaters and ModCloth. Search for “homesteading” on Etsy or Pinterest, and the wealth of results—everything from art to downloadable instructions for how to can beans to images of daisy bouquets—is overwhelming.
But for large portions of the poor and immigrant classes, homesteading skills are still survival skills. Can you really have a rebirth of something that never actually died out in the first place?
In Pha Lo’s 2011 Salon post, “When Eating Organic Was Totally Uncool,” the writer and nutrition educator recalls the subsistence farming her family practiced in a Hmong immigrant community in Sacramento, California. According to Lo, “[We] grew organic food and raised chickens in our backyards to survive. [And] we did it in secrecy.” Lo’s essay is a view into practices that are still closely guarded secrets in many communities. “‘Don’t tell the Americans,’ my mother would always say,” writes Lo, “and, eventually, as I grew into adolescence, I couldn’t agree more. I was afraid of being judged.”
As an adult, Lo has not continued her family’s practice of organic gardening. “The defiant child food-stamp user in me still needs the validation thatcomes from putting pen to paper and declaring, in writing, that I earned the right to take this food home.” Lo’s account speaks to the divide separating the modern urban homesteading heralded in the media and the sustainment and survival practices of poor and immigrant populations—practices that seem to remain unacknowledged and, socially speaking, uncool.
Mainstream cultural emphasis on this “new” homesteading vs. the continuity of traditional skills fostered out of necessity erases the history of homesteading in America. When we talk about the mainstream resurgence of craftwork and Pin-able, packageable skills, we need to acknowledge the foundation of these practices as poor skills—survival skills and “alternate” techniques for accessing food, shelter, and power primarily practiced by those with marginal or nonexistent incomes.
The mainstream appropriation of poor skills might sell books, but it might also be detrimental to the people who do depend on these skills for survival. Simply put, the appropriation of poor skills by the mainstream can end up further marginalizing already marginalized populations who still rely on those skills.
Homesteading has always been motivated by issues of class. The 1862 Homestead Act granted certain applicants (including immigrants, single women, and former slaves) 160 acres of federal land on the west side of the Mississippi River. Those who qualified were required to live and farm on their land for five years. The law was an effort to democratize land ownership in the West; Republicans of the era wanted independent farmers, rather than slave owners, to have a chance at owning land. (Land still occupied by Native Americans, by the way.) But it wasn’t motivated by altruism or concern for the landless poor. The Homestead Act was about cutting off another avenue of political power for wealthy Southerners.
And while Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series is a well-known (if romanticized) account of a homesteading family in the 1870s and ’80s, there’s a diverse and rich history of homesteading in the States. Huck patches, a common name for gardens kept by slaves, were common as a way for slaves to supplement meager rations, and saved many from slow starvation. At the end of World War II, 40 percent of the produce consumed in the United States was grown in “victory gardens”—urban and suburban gardens popularized specifically to address wartime food shortages.
The 1970s saw poor, urban communities pulling together in response to inflation, urban abandonment, and food (in)security. Strengthening social networks and neighborhood relationships rebuilt social infrastructure in stressed communities. These days, community gardens have become a cornerstone of inner-city and urban renewal programs begun by people of color; initiatives from the South Bronx to Detroit to Los Angeles emphasize the power of a garden to help revitalize the community around it.
These efforts are rooted in survival.
But in contrast to the Ingalls family or even the community gardeners of the 1970s, today’s homesteaders—urban homesteaders in particular—are less isolated and have more flexibility. The need for complete self-sufficiency has waned. Urban homesteading is often an individual effort, practiced by single people and single families.
The Dervaes family, the entrepreneurs behind the Urban Homestead project, is a good example of this. The family has spent 10 years turning an urban lot, a 15-minute drive from downtown Pasadena, into a sustainable farm. They call their family-run organization the Path to Freedom. At their website, you can follow their “10 Elements of Urban Homesteading” checklist or download their press kit. You’ll also find instructions not to use the term “urban homesteading” unless referring specifically to them or their products. In 2011, cease-and-desist letters were sent to bloggers who used the term to encompass the general phenomenon of homesteading in the city. It’s a far cry from no. 10 on their checklist, “Be a good neighbor.”
Their project is a form of capitalistic homesteading—the Dervaeses sell shirts, hats, seeds, and even a short film at their online store—but it’s also about branding. The family provides consulting and workshops based on their own experiences. They have positioned themselves as the face of urban homesteading. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does erase the people who have been practicing these skills for much longer and with much more need.
And, while not quite as extreme, similar erasure is all too common. A proliferation of books and websites all promise to teach the newly interested an array of homesteading skills. New products, from compost bins to how-to instructions for folks wanting to start their own fertilizer business, are steadily introduced to help newly minted urban homesteaders on their adventure. It’s not unlike the proliferation of the “not your mother’s knitting” trend that took shape in the early 2000s. Books, blogs, classes, and boutiques sprung up, but the attention always seemed to be on needlework’s modern hip factor, with little regard for its history. (To say nothing of those for whom the skill wasn’t a cute diversion, but a necessity.)
Rising costs from the commodification of poor skills can also leave people who still rely on these skills further marginalized. Williams-Sonoma’s “Chicken Coop Predator Kit” ($79.95 not including shipping) is basically a roll of chicken wire with hardware. The coops themselves range from $500 to $1,300. While there probably isn’t anything wrong with the coops themselves (and they do look nice), the careful design speaks to a desire to make raising chickens an aesthetic endeavor. The small coops—and coordinating accessory chicken runs that are also available—are deliberately reminiscent of rustic construction. But instead of scrap materials or whatever is economically available, these coops are built from certified-sustainable wood. They are hand-finished with a low-voc acrylic latex paint. You can even order one made from reclaimed redwood to combine “modern green construction with the rustic appeal of an old barn.”
When a chicken coop has more architectural prestige than most houses, image seems to be just as important as the eggs—if not more. Especially when the Williams-Sonoma coops only house four to six hens—a good number for eggs, but not for subsistence.
Economics dictate that when there are more people willing to pay more for a product, the market adjusts up; prices increase across the board. This isn’t just the case with coops. Newcomers to chicken raising often go for prestige chickens, fancy-crested breeds, or breeds with feathered feet or extra-long tails. But many sellers also market standard breeds as show breeds—and charge commensurate prices. This kind of price adjusting is good for the people selling chickens, but it can be disastrous for people raising chickens out of necessity. As the prices for livestock and supplies rise, the entry fee for homestead activities could quickly skyrocket beyond the reach of those who most need to practice these skills.
But it’s not just about products, it’s also about policy. My central Florida town recently implemented an urban-chicken pilot program due to a clamor of interest from young, middle-class community members. The program allows people to keep hens, but no roosters. Participants are allowed to raise chickens for eggs, but not for meat. This means urban homesteaders who want to raise eggs in fancy coops have won out—but anyone who needs to raise chickens for subsistence reasons suffers, and is subject to fines and seizure if they get caught.
Governmental limitation of the “wrong” kind of homesteading can be seen elsewhere. In 2011, Denise Morrison’s garden was chopped down by Tulsa, Oklahoma, officials who claimed it violated city ordinances. Morrison grew more than 100 edible and medicinal plants in her yard. Subsistence gardens are more about function than design; they aren’t always pretty, and Morrison wasn’t raising organic fruit and vegetables in neat rows of raised beds. Despite a stay issued by local courts, officials removed every last one of her plants. Unemployed and without health insurance, Morrison had relied on her garden for food and medicine. “They basically took away my livelihood,” she told Tulsa’s KOTV.
“Homesteading, by necessity, isn’t sexy,” says Genny Charet, who blogs at badmamagenny.com. “If it can’t be packaged and spoon-fed to one identifiable demographic, it loses its platform. And how do you package and sell ‘I don’t have enough money for Advil when I have my period so I grow raspberry leaf instead?’ It’s not fair or right, but then, mainstream media is not an avenue that can be counted on to advance the interests of marginalized populations.” Cases like Morrison’s are common; widespread media coverage of them is not.
While poor people of color, like Denise Morrison, steadily practice survival, the cool kids are lauded for their revolutionary interest in a gentrified version of subsistence farming. Morrison’s only recourse is a lengthy—and likely expensive—court battle. Even if she wins her complaint, it isn’t as if the city can replace her carefully cultivated garden.
Small-scale farmers in Michigan are feeling the squeeze as well. Earlier this year, Michigan’s Invasive Species Order went into effect. While innocuous on the surface, the order mandates the destruction of any “feral” pig—including many heritage breeds that have been raised on small family farms for decades. In addition, the order also targets pigs that are raised outside, meaning only pigs raised within the confinement pens of major farms are considered legitimate. Heritage pig farmers in Michigan are already facing fines and orders to depopulate their pig farms.
More traditional homesteaders are also impacted when the mainstream looks at homesteading as an individual rather than a community effort. Andrea Chandler lives in rural Virginia. She and her husband and their dogs and cats (and goats and chickens) are homesteaders. Long before Chandler settled on her 2.5 acres of grass and trees, she learned about edible plants from her grandfather, who learned about them from his own parents during the Depression. Chandler is concerned about how much damage can be done by inexperienced foragers. “Native plants in a lot of areas are barely hanging on because of habitat destruction and invasive species. They don’t need a bunch of assholes grazing them because they think it’s fun.”
She continues, “[Newcomers to urban homesteading] are claiming these skills and playing at them like a game, making money off appropriating and selling knowledge that the people who actually need it often share for free.” When books by educated white folks are positioned as the primary repositories of knowledge about homesteading skills (take Canning & Preserving for Dummies, for instance), it further erases the poor people who have preserved these skills. It is not a matter of authenticity; rather, it is an ethicial question associated with cutting out populations that could actually benefit from this resurgence of interest in homesteading.
In the end, Chandler tells me, “I don’t want people to get the impression that I don’t want people to learn all these skills. They’re valuable to have even if you’re an urban hipster, because they can do things like teach you what we’ve sacrificed to get mass-produced agricultural products in to grocery stores. They can give people a sense of connection to their roots.”
There’s no debating the sense of accomplishment many neo-homesteaders feel as they practice their newly learned skills. Blogs such as Hipster Homesteading provide direct insight into just how invested many people are in these skills. But when that sense of personal satisfaction comes with a price for already marginalized populations, we must examine our own practices. There seems to be little acknowledgment of the idea that poor and immigrant populations might be directly involved in the broader homesteading movement, to the benefit of everyone involved.
I learned how to sew at my great-grandmother’s feet, literally seated on the floor underneath her quilting frame. Now I work an office job, and I supplement what I buy at the organic farmers’ market with what I grow in my own container garden. I am aware with every phone call back home that I can do them because of my family’s working-poor background—but that I can do these things without shame because urban homesteading is cool again.
I’m not homesteading because I need it to survive. But these are my roots; these are the skills my family practiced for their own survival. And I think that there must be a way to practice these skills while being socially responsible, aware of how the new energy in the urban homesteading movement can negatively impact the people who will continue to use these skills out of necessity.
My conversations with my maternal grandparents, the people I turn to for everything from gardening tips to venison recipes, are not framed in pop culture terms. They garden and preserve food and freeze meat because these are the things they have always done; they grew up planting in the spring and fall. When my grandmother reminds me that you shouldn’t make jelly on humid days (it might not set properly), it’s advice born of lifelong experience. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s simply life.
Marianne Kirby lives, works, and gardens in Orlando, Florida. She is the coauthor of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body and is a regular contributor at xoJane.com, where she writes about nail polish, class war, and diy from a personal perspective.
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